How Communities are Promoting Health and Responding to Climate Change

Sep 30, 2019, 1:00 PM, Posted by

Across the United States, people are recognizing that climate change is a major threat to any vision of a healthy future. They are responding by developing solutions to not only avoid the health harms from climate change, but also actively improve health and limit climate change.

A city park offers a walking path for the community.

In Austin, Texas, city officials have grown increasingly concerned about their residents enduring more days with extreme heat. In particular, they worry that extreme heat events prevent young people from getting physical activity and harm people’s overall well-being.  

Austin leaders decided to respond by increasing green space and tree shade around some of the city’s public schools, especially those that largely serve students of color or those in lower-income neighborhoods. More trees create cooler spaces for physical activity. They also help address climate change by decreasing the need for air conditioning, which use about 6 percent of all electricity produced in the United States. Trees are effective because green space and shade reduce temperatures over heat-storing concrete.

At first glance, planting some trees may seem like a limited and short-term approach in the face of a changing global climate. Trees, however, are an important climate solution because they remove carbon from the atmosphere. Increasing levels of carbon in the atmosphere causes climate change. We need more trees—lots more.

The effort in Austin is just one of the countless creative solutions that communities across the United States are implementing—from Portland to rural Alaska to parts of the Navajo nation.  

How We’re Learning from Solutions for Health and Climate Change in Communities

Through its Health and Climate Solutions program, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has funded seven grantees, including the City of Austin, in an effort to assess and learn from programs developed by innovative communities to address the health impacts of climate change while building a better, more equitable future. Each grantee seeks to achieve three goals: create opportunities for better health, advance health equity, and focus on climate adaptation or mitigation. We have a lot to learn from these communities because we know our rapidly warming planet is changing our air, water, food and weather, which is harming human health. We know that climate change is a major threat to any vision of a healthy future. 

Fundamentally, human health and the health of our planet are intertwined.

While every part of the United States is experiencing the health harms from climate change—including extreme heat, wildfires, more frequent and intense hurricanes, insect-borne diseases like Lyme disease or West Nile spreading to new regions, and toxic algal blooms—some people and communities are affected sooner and more directly. Where you live or work, your age, your pre-existing health conditions or chronic illnesses, as well as your race or income all influence what health harms from climate change you experience—and how strongly you feel them.  

For example, low income and communities of color are more likely to live near pollution producing power plants. People with pre-existing health conditions like asthma or heart disease face greater threats from air pollution and reduced air quality from hotter days. Climate change magnifies the inequities that prevent all people from having a fair and just opportunity to live a healthier life.  

Climate change doesn’t just harm our health, it deepens inequities. 

That is why we are looking for community-driven solutions to understand how people on the frontlines of climate harms are creating solutions that improve health and support their communities.  

Drawing on Local and Indigenous Knowledge for Health and Climate Solutions

Many Indigenous people, for example, have knowledge and experience to shape some of the most effective solutions. This is critical because Indigenous communities are also at greater risk for the health harms of climate change.  

For example, leaders in the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community are blending the CDC’s public health approach—the Building Resilience Against Climate Effects (BRACE) Framework—with traditional Indigenous values, understanding and practices. In Finland, Minnesota, and Navajo communities in New Mexico, farmers are using regenerative farming practices—a number of farming practices like crop rotation and different grazing practices—to improve the quality of crops, foster soil health, reduce the climate footprint of agriculture, and improve the ability of crops to withstand flooding, drought and heat.

The work in Austin, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, Minnesota and New Mexico are four of seven new grants to learn what is working on the ground. The other three projects are:

  • Buffalo, New York: People United for Sustainable Housing, Inc., (PUSH) Buffalo is helping weatherproof houses in cities to improve energy efficiency, community development and resilience and improve health, while boosting the local economy. 

  • Portland, Oregon: Friends of Trees is planting trees in low-income, ethnically-diverse neighborhoods to improve the health and well-being of local communities. 

  • Anchorage, Alaska: the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC) has developed an innovative, portable water sanitation system for homes in rural, Native Alaskan communities where climate change impacts on infrastructure and the environment makes it nearly impossible to access safe, clean water.

We can’t build a Culture of Health if we aren’t responding to both known and emerging threats to health—and taking steps to prepare for those that we know are coming.


about the authors

Michael Painter

Michael Painter, a senior program officer, is a physician, attorney and health policy advocate. His work includes identifying cutting edge ideas and investments that could help build a Culture of Health. 

Priya Gandhi

Priya Gandhi, a research associate in the Research-Evaluation-Learning Unit, helps develop and manage research initiatives and evaluations that generate evidence around programs, policies, and practices that can lead to a Culture of Health.